The Italian liqueur, Amaro (ah ma' roh), is one of my favorite after dinner drinks. Ever since I was first served this liqueur after dinner at a restaurant in Bologna, I have been hooked on them, or at least most of them (more on this later). However, on those occasions when I have served them to guests, response to them has been what might charitably be described as mixed. There is a wide range of styles of Amaro from bittersweet to bitter and one should be discriminating when offering a particular Amaro to guests, especially people unfamiliar with this particular liqueur.
For those not familiar with Amari (the plural of Amaro), a little background may be appropriate. First, Amari are a class of liqueurs known as “bitters” which are made by infusing a distilled spirit with an intricate mix of roots, barks, spices, herbs, fruit peels and botanicals. The word “Amaro” itself means “bitter” or “sour” in Italian.
Second, not all Amari are bitter tasting. As mentioned previously, there is a wide range of styles of Amaro ranging from those with a touch of nuanced sweetness to those with a bitter, perhaps even medicinal taste. Therefore, it’s probably best to sample several different styles of Amari and identify those that best meet your taste preferences.
While Amaro is not a particularly well known drink in the U.S., it is a common after-dinner drink in Italy. It is an integral part of the Italian dining experience, a rationale for continuing the dinner conversation and enjoying the convivialita of family and friends. Amaro is also considered a digestivo in that a small amount of Amaro consumed after dinner is alleged to have medicinal benefits in terms of calming one’s nerves and aiding digestion. Whether this is in fact the case is an open question.
The list of Amaro ingredients can vary considerably from one producer to another. A given Amaro can can include dozens of ingredients. Some are ones you would find in a well-stocked kitchen spice rack such as ginger, star anise, citrus peel or zest, mint, cardamom, sage, chamomile, cloves and cinnamon. Others are perhaps less familiar, more exotic ingredients such as cinchona bark, wormwood and gentian among other ingredients. A bottle of Amaro can contain a health-food-store-cabinet of botanicals, roots and herbs.
Amari have a long and varied history. Today’s Amari can trace their roots, so to speak, back to the herbal tonics and elixirs formulated centuries ago in the monasteries and abbeys that dotted the Italian landscape. Ancient monks had a penchant for tinkering with elixirs believed to have restorative or medicinal properties and perhaps as protection against plagues or evil. The income generated from sale of the liqueurs was also valuable in supporting their religious work.
As they became more popular in the mid-1800s they began to be commercially produced. While a few religious orders are still active in the production of Amari, most Amari today are made by commercial, for-profit businesses. Every Amaro producer zealously guards its house recipe and ingredients list. In some cases, only a few employees or family members may know or have access to the recipe and list of ingredients. It is not unlike the secrecy surrounding the formula for Coca-Cola or a Kentucky distillery’s recipe for its bourbon.
Amaro is best enjoyed as an after-dinner digestivo served straight up in a tumbler or shot glass at room temperature. However, it is also popular as a before-dinner aperitivo served over ice with an orange peel.
Some popular brands of Amari generally available in local wine shops include (in alphabetical order) the following:
Averna Amaro (about $27) – from the island of Sicily, this bittersweet Amaro has ample maple syrup and caramel flavors and a gentle, bitter-herbal finish.
Fernet Branca (about $29) – developed in Milan in 1845, Fernet Branca has become one of Italy's more unusual and iconic drinks. Its syrupy texture and bitter, medicinal flavors make it something of an acquired taste and not for the faint-of-heart. I had it once and will leave it at that. Nonetheless, it is extremely popular in Italy and has legions of enthusiasts that simply love it.
Lucano Amaro (about $21) - from the Basilicata region in southern Italy (the word “Lucano” is derived from Lucania, the ancient Latin name for Basilicata), this Amaro has a deep, dark color with a reddish tint and pronounced caramel flavor and a finish with a nuanced sweetness.
Meletti Amaro (about $15) – this amber-colored Amaro has herbal aromas overlaid with cinnamon and caramel fragrances and a pleasant, slightly bitter finish.
Montenegro Amaro (about $28) – despite its light rust color, this Amaro from Bologna has rich herbal aromas that segue to deep, slightly sweet flavors and a citrusy finish.
Nonino Quintessentia Amaro (about $38) – Nonino’s Quintessentia (kwin tess en’ cha) is produced in the Friuli region in northeastern Italy. It is made from a grappa distillate infused with herbs and then aged in small oak barrels (barriques) for five years. It has pronounced herbal aromas and an interesting interplay of spicy and sweet flavors that are cleaner and less syrupy than other Amari.
Ramazzotti Amaro (about $22) – made in Milan, this bittersweet liqueur has coffee and orange-peel flavors and a lively taste of ginger on the finish.
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